London, one of the world’s leading financial and cultural centres, is also known as the ‘tuberculosis capital of Europe’.
You may already know this, however it is a piece of health information that I like to pass on to as many people as possible.
I’ll be honest, I’m not doing this as a way of performing a sort of personal public health service, at least not in the first instance. What I’m looking for is a level of knowledge or awareness in the people around me.
What I get, repeatedly, is surprise.
Yet the description of London as the ‘tuberculosis capital of Europe’ dates back as far as December 2010 and, a brief Google search reveals, it has been used in UK headlines ever since.TB in badgers is more talked about in the UK than TB in humans, though the human version is on a par with HIV and Malaria as one of the top killers in the world.
Historically TB is thought to be one of the oldest diseases we have – with human bones from as far back as the Neolithic era containing traces of the bacteria. It was rampant in the UK in the 18th and 19th Century, across all classes of people including doctors and poets, giving it something of a Romantic reputation.
Advances in the development of a vaccination and antibiotic treatment of TB has enabled the UK to become complacent about a disease that for most people is now consigned to the history books. As Head of TB Surveillance for Public Health England, Dr Lucy Thomas says: “TB is a preventable and treatable condition” which is only life-threatening if untreated.
And yet. There are nearly 9,000 reported cases of TB in the UK. Whilst the latest report from Public Health England (PHE) shows that rates of TB have stabilised the number of cases is still significantly higher than the rest of Western Europe.
It is a disease these days of the dispossessed. Despite the mythology that all British cases are imported the UK Government state that eight out of ten Londoners with tuberculosis in 2012 were UK-born or had been living in the UK for at least 2 years prior to their diagnosis.
Those infected with TB are however likely to be living on the streets where a persistent cough, night sweats and weight loss are low priority on their list of concerns. Identifying people with the disease is hard enough, ensuring they complete the minimum 6 month course of treatment required is a challenge; knowing who else they have been in contact with is nigh on impossible.
Let’s be clear on a few things here. The nearly 9,000 reported cases of tuberculosis in the UK is tiny when you consider the global picture of 8.6 million new TB cases worldwide in 2012.But the latest, ugliest monster in the global village is the development of new, drug resistant strains of the disease. We’re not staring down the barrel of an epidemic right now in the UK but as MP Andrew George says “TB does not respect borders, and drug-resistant strains of TB pose a major risk to the health of the British people.”
TB was once a disease that we believed we could wipe out completely by the 1980s. Quietly, however, it has crept back into our dark, unseen and unloved corners, where poetry is not, as yet, to be found.